The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

rocket explosion illustration

The thin line between success and explosion

“Liftoff! Success and Failure on the Launch Pad”
by Spacecraft Films
2-Disk DVD

Several years ago several recovering space geeks were commenting in a public forum about some new space documentary. The consensus opinion was that it was not very good. It contained no new information and exhibited some of the common traits of shabbier documentaries, such as the use of inappropriate stock footage, including the wrong rocket launches. In the course of this discussion a documentary filmmaker stepped in to defend his profession. He made the claim that the reason why space documentaries use the same footage over and over—such as always showing the launch of Apollo 8 no matter which Apollo mission is being discussed—is because no other footage is available. NASA destroyed all the other Saturn launch footage, he assured the group.

The space geeks didn’t buy it. After all, Apollo was one of the most photographed events in history. Most historical events happen without cameras present, but the Saturn launches were planned long in advance and NASA had both engineering and public relations reasons to photograph every launch from dozens of angles. There were also dozens of television crews present. It was impossible to think that all of this footage was simply unavailable. If a new documentary used the same tired launch tower footage that was replayed on MTV millions of times in the 1980s, it had to be due to lazy filmmaking.

The producers at Spacecraft Films have now proven beyond any doubt that there is a gold mine of spectacular footage of the various American space efforts that has rarely, if ever, been shown before. The company has produced a number of high-quality DVD sets featuring most of the Apollo missions, as well as others such as Mercury, Gemini, and Shuttle. The Apollo missions, for instance, usually feature at least half a dozen different views of each launch. Clearly some angles are better than others, and some footage is superior to the rest. But it exists, and even the poorly exposed shots may depict something that is not visible from other angles. The DVDs also often feature footage of the vehicle preparation at the pad—dozens of workmen crawling all over the rocket gantry, sometimes in the middle of the night. The value of images like this is that they convey the immensity of the industrial effort that went into Apollo.

The producers at Spacecraft Films have now proven beyond any doubt that there is a gold mine of spectacular footage of the various American space efforts that has rarely, if ever, been shown before.

Spacecraft Films’ latest DVD set is called “Liftoff!” It is a two-DVD set and is different from previous releases by the company. The first disk contains four short Air Force documentaries on subjects such as the X-17 test missile, Strategic Air Command, and the Thor ballistic missile. The second disk contains footage of numerous rocket launches, particularly ones that ended in disaster.

The short films and documentaries on the first disk are fascinating because they provide a look inside the Air Force ballistic missile culture, much the same way that old “duck and cover” films from the middle of the Cold War help to transport us into a different era. For instance, there is a short film that was created for new Strategic Air Command colonels who had just been placed in charge of a missile squadron. If you watch and listen to it closely, you get a sense of the culture clash that these men faced—they were used to flying bombers their whole careers and now they were assigned to a job that was a complete change for them. Many of them barely knew what a missile was and so this was their introduction. Another explains the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile, which was essentially created as an interim ballistic missile until the longer-range Atlas ICBM became available. The documentary makes clear how incredibly quickly the Thor was produced, entering service in only a few years. It is a timeline that is unthinkable today. Occasionally these films are goofy or a little bit odd, but they are always entertaining. The producer deserves a lot of credit for finding these obscure films and making them publicly available.

Disk two is a collection of launch footage, both successful and unsuccessful. This is essentially “Rocket Porn”. You may learn something, but for the most part it is just fun to watch. (Rocket Porn is a subset of Space Geek Porn, which consists of pretty, airbrushed pictures of things normally not found in nature, and which is ultimately bad for your soul.)

There are multiple views of the spectacular Atlas-Centaur pad explosion in 1965 that caused tremendous damage to the launch facilities. That explosion provided significant information on the explosive power of liquid hydrogen and helped establish safety criteria for later rockets that used this fuel. The disk includes multiple views of other launches and failures. Some of these events, like a Juno II spiraling and crashing, have been shown in documentaries before. Usually the director uses the “best” image for that event, meaning that the exact same footage gets used over and over again by documentarians. But as we see on this collection, there are other, equally dramatic shots of these events. Sometimes seeing these angles is repetitive. But other times a different angle either reveals new information, or completely changes our perspective.

For instance, one of the shots of the Juno II death spiral is taken from seaside, near the pad. The rocket lifts off and moves out of frame very quickly. The interesting thing about this shot is that you cannot see it spiral out of control or explode or hit the ground. You don't see any smoke because the wind blew it away from the pad. So from this angle, you know that something went bad, but you don't see how bad it actually got. The shot reminded me of the Soviet habit of selectively editing their space footage at the height of the Cold War in order to conceal their failures. The United States conducted their failures on the world stage.

Disk two is a collection of launch footage, both successful and unsuccessful. This is essentially “Rocket Porn”. You may learn something, but for the most part it is just fun to watch.

The launch footage includes rare film of Robert Goddard’s early launches, which are usually only shown in other documentaries as short clips. Here we see much more, revealing a greater historical film record than we knew was available. There is also footage of V-2 launches. However, it is the Atlas, Titan, and other launch vehicle accidents that is most spectacular. These clips are narrated by Dave Mohr, a former propulsion engineer who was involved in some of these launches. Mohr provides much insight into what went wrong, making it clear that there is often only a thin line between a successful launch and devastating destruction. Rockets are an unforgiving technology.

The quality of the image transfers is top notch and most of it is extremely sharp and colorful. Because of the film chemistry that was then in popular use, many films from that period have turned pink with age. But the ones used for this disk are vivid and crisp.

There are really only two minor criticisms of this material, both related to the commentary track. The first is that it is impossible to turn the commentary track off unless you turn off the sound. It would be nice to be able to simply watch all the footage without the talking. Of course, the sound of the rockets launching and exploding has been added, since launch pad cameras were not equipped to record sound in the first place. The other criticism is that sometimes the commentary is excellent and knowledgeable, and other times it consists of Mohr saying, for the third time, “and here we see the rocket blowing up again.” But these are minor criticisms, and for the most part this is a great collection, although you have to be a serious rocket geek to appreciate it.

It would be great to see another DVD set with this same theme. There is still a lot more launch footage in archives of various unmanned rockets, including other spectacular failures, such as a few Poseidon and Trident spirals into the ocean. It would be neat to see some footage of the rare Atlas intelligence satellite launches. Another potential subject would be Soviet space launches (and failures), although that material is far harder to acquire. Finally, a colleague who watched this DVD idly suggested that an enterprising film editor could connect all of the explosion footage and put it to music, somewhat like the closing sequence of Dr. Strangelove. You have to be a serious space geek to appreciate that.